During the early days of the British North African Campaigns of WWII, an idea was born out of the trials and experiments of the UK Commando force (Layforce). The result of the idea to build a highly mobile and adaptable strike force, capable of hitting the enemy in their rear was the Special Air Service, or SAS. For those who know the history of post-WWII U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF), you will recognize the recruiting, selection, training, and unit make-up of the SAS—much of it is still in use across the United States military, especially in SOF.

For those who know nothing of the U.S. military, an examination of how the SAS was born in 1941 and what made it truly “special” is a useful study for anyone in the leadership and team-building business. From Wall Street to Iowa farmlands, and from the factory floor to the sports arena, team recruiting and bond-building is the lifeblood of success.

 

We are the pilgrims, master;

We shall go always a little further; 

Leaders Matter

First let’s start with the man credited with the idea of an SAS force, and his partner in crime (some actual) for the creation of the “L Detachment, SAS”. Lt. Archibald David Stirling was not the commando leader most would picture today. A tall, gangly, some might say lazy or unremarkable officer that often grew so bored of Army training and waiting for battle that he just wandered off to drink or entertain himself. Lt. John “Jock” Steele Lewes was exactly who you would picture leading a commando raid: daring, fit, austere, and a workaholic. Both men came from good (respected and wealthy-enough) families. They were educated (or given the chance to be), and they were an odd couple.

That is a great place to start thinking about teambuilding. You can likely recruit a better team and train them more effectively if the leaders of the team are different individually, but share the same vision. These two each brought a different strength to the mission of building the SAS, but they also both brought courage and a willingness to lead by example. They did what they asked their recruits to do, and they fought everyone outside the unit to get their men what they needed.

After slyly pitching the dream to build the SAS to the senior military commander in the region, Stirling relentlessly recruited Jock to be his partner in crime. Jock fought off the offer for a while, but Stirling was successful in lobbying him to join the L Detachment of the SAS, as it would be called for information operations reasons. Then they both brought in the cadre needed to run the selection process; they chose wisely. Jock was the deputy commander and the training officer of the unit. The two never became friends, but they became the glue holding the SAS together.

It may be beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,

across that angry or glimmering sea,

 

Recruiting your core

Jock recruited a tough sergeant to help him train the other recruits. His first pick was actually an American from Wisconsin that moved to Britain with his family as a child and faked his British citizenship to join the army. He, like Stirling and Jock, had earlier volunteered for the Layforce commando unit that was built for North African campaigning and then disbanded there. Sergeant Riley, the giant man that people naturally followed, brought in Sgt. Almonds, who had been seen acting bravely in battle and was a married man with kids at home.

When you build a new team, you need maturity in your core team – people with natural leadership abilities and those who can lead without rank or position. You also build slowly at first. The time to open the floodgates comes after you have built the team that understands the vision, the mission, and what you are looking for to round-out the team.

White on a throne or guarded in a cave

there lives a prophet who knows why men were born:

 

Selection and Training

Most organizations don’t use every volunteer that shows up for the team try-outs. Elite organizations have a specific plan for selecting only the best people to get a chance to be on the team. The SAS used the technique of recruiting with a bit of mystery.  Stirling only told the soldiers that his unit was looking for volunteers that would jump behind enemy lines. That would lead to some foolish, strange, dangerous, and independent-minded people showing up. That was what they wanted.

Jock, the training officer of L Detachment, created a rigorous training/selection course. They knew that not all would make it through. They wanted men that were hard to lead but, as Stirling put it, “could be harnessed” into a team of horses that can pull very hard together. The idea of the selection process was not to break their independent streaks, but to see who could push themselves harder than most men thought possible. Once they had the raw material sorted out, they would just need to focus their energy.

They used brutal march lengths and navigation exercises, along with specialized training in weapons, explosives, radios, and medical skills. They even used written testing to make them reason through random situations to see how they would “think their way out” of the scenarios. The sleep was sparse and the food poor, leaving the men in a hungry and uncomfortable state.

This model is mirrored in modern selection and teambuilding phases of many special operations units around the world. Even in the early SAS, everyone had to be an expert at one of the four basic combat skills and try to master the rest over time. To even make the cut to learn one of the four key skills, all had to be able to march, navigate, and think creatively.

In building out the SAS camp, Stirling allowed some unorthodox bonding as well. The Army provided almost nothing beyond a plot of land for the SAS paratroopers. To remedy their deficiencies, they drove a truck over to a NZ camp while the Kiwis were off training and took multiple loads of supplies, to include a piano. Letting the team break all the rules, when no one is really getting hurt, is sometimes a useful bonding adventure.

If you can build a team that is innovative and full of different personalities and skills, you will have the makings of something special and impactful. This should be a well-planned process, that allows for deviations to training when the opportunity presents itself. 

But surely we are brave,

Who take the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

Holding the team together

Stirling and Jock would need a variety of officers to keep the men focused. They were authorized only six junior officers, so Stirling was creative. Stirling selected a wolf-like officer, the infamous and violent Paddy Maynes, but he also brought on a gamekeeper named Eoin McGonical. Eoin was Paddy’s long-time friend, who Paddy considered his little brother. If you bring in a loose cannon, you need someone that can talk them down when they get too hot. McGonical was formerly of the Ulster Rifles and Commando force and calm in combat. It’s believed Paddy asked Stirling to recruit him.

To ensure the enlisted men would follow their officers on these risky missions, Jock and Stirling required all the officers to conduct every training event with the men. Stirling would continue to lead by example. One such occasion would require him to show his men where to find their courage. On an early training jump when their static lines failed, two men fell to earth without a parachute. They died on impact, and Jock announced that jumping would resume the next morning. Stirling, who had an earlier parachuting mishap that landed him in hospital, took his position and exited the aircraft first the next day. (Ironically that earlier parachute accident led to Stirling having the spare time, while he learned to walk again, to dream up the SAS concept with Jock Lewes.)

Stirling would continue fighting the bureaucrats outside his detachment to get his people what they needed. He would also keep listening to their ideas. It is difficult but important to build a team that allows you to hear many opposing views. Encourage them to bring you their bold and divergent ideas…you decide which to encourage and which to pocket for later.

While most readers won’t be building a legendary combat team, you all have the opportunity to use some of the old SAS techniques in building your next or current organization smarter. As the SAS would prove time and again, and take as their motto, who dares wins.

Notes

*The bits of poem weaved throughout the article are from “The Golden Road to Samarkand” by James Elroy Flecker, and can be found on various SAS markers and memorials.

**The already fictional First Special Air Service Brigade was a fake paratrooper brigade the British were using in their propaganda efforts to make the Italians waste their forces setting up defenses to fight the fabricated Brits. When the British deception chief heard of the idea for an actual parachute commando force being raised, he pushed for the naming of the unit as the “L Detachment of the SAS Brigade.” This would expand the deception in the region making the enemy think there were already A-K detachments in existence.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.